How Private Charity Can Help National Security

Image: Donation. Pixabay/HeatherPaque. Public domain.

Patriotic philanthropists can help make the military better.

Americans have big hearts. They give more than $360 billion every year to good causes. Yet very little of that goes to keeping themselves, their families, communities or country safe from our nation’s enemies.

Most Americans figure that defense is the government’s job. And if Washington is not up to the task, well, they don’t imagine that donations can do much to match the hundreds-of-billions the Pentagon spends. They are wrong. Targeted philanthropy can deliver significant competitive advantages to the U.S.—and that support will be vital to rebuilding our national defense.

By objective measures America’s hard power is declining. Even if the next administration is committed to reversing the decline, it will take time and resources that are in short supply. Future presidents will have to balance rebuilding military power with concurrent efforts to rein in federal spending and the debt. At the same time, they will need to reassert American influence in multiple critical parts of the world.

Washington is going to need all the help it can get.

When philanthropists turn their attention to making the world safer for America, they usually focus on the softer side of security: assistance, democracy promotion, or civil society. The idea is to cool embers before they fan into violence or put out brush fires before they reach American shores. Much of that aid, while well-intentioned, falls short; hit-and-miss activities can even make conditions worse.

Even when aid actually aids, it doesn’t always stop threats from arising in the affected area. Besides, many national security dangers don’t arise not from failed states, but from very capable states—like Iran, Russia and China—or powerful nonstate actors like ISIS.

Scant philanthropy goes to actually aiding U.S. efforts to beat back bad actors. Indeed, a long-standing principle of international aid efforts has been: Don’t take sides. (The Red Cross adopted this concept as one of its core principles in 1921.) That limits the ability of programs to directly impact U.S. security interests.

Arguably, there is no reason why philanthropy can’t be focused on specifically supporting US efforts. After all, any effort that imposes itself in a security situation becomes more than a neutral actor. Nadia Schadlow, who directs foreign-policy giving at the Smith Richardson Foundation, argues that the space for “neutral” aid is actually relatively narrow. “Once any long-term effort to alleviate suffering begins, it becomes political,” she points out, so “not taking sides” is often more a theory than a practical reality.

Indeed, there are organizations, like Spirit of America, that already work side-by-side supporting U.S. troops in the field with humanitarian aid projects. “This is not conventional charity. It is not neutral. Everything is done in support of U.S. troops,” says Jim Hake, who heads Spirit of America. “We advance human security and well-being. But taking a side breaks new ground in international assistance.”

In many cases nonneutral organizations supported by philanthropy are demonstrating greater effectiveness than the governments they are supporting. A nimble philanthropic organization operating at the “retail” level and paying careful attention to detail can often be more effective than a government-run entity.

National-security philanthropy can play a significant operational role in security matters (for example, there are private [nonmilitary] efforts going on as we speak to help the Kurds in Iraq deal with the ISIS threat), but it can also make an impact in the functional tasks of defense and security—particularly in developing niche capabilities that the military services have difficulty delivering themselves.

Philanthropy for defense programs is basically private funding for activities supporting defense without expecting return benefits to specific persons or organizations. Like any philanthropic effort, building future defense capabilities could be considered an intrinsic social and public good that creates a margin of excellence for the armed forces.

Historically, philanthropists have banded together to support professional military education, for example. From the academies to the war colleges, all the professional military schools garner philanthropic support for everything from traditional student activities to research centers like the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. Philanthropic efforts also contribute ideas—from policy recommendations to intelligence assessments—through funding a variety of think tanks and other research organizations. Developing military capabilities, however, doesn’t have to be limited to developing minds.